When I first saw All American: Homecoming, on The CW, I was immediately drawn to the uniqueness of the story. I remember watching Beverly Hills 90210, Saved by the Bell and Dawson’s Creek growing up to gain an understanding of my own experiences in secondary school. Those programs simply didn’t offer the diversity that I was used to seeing in my high school’s halls, but that diversity stood out in The CW’s new series.
The All American spin-off (which airs on CTV2 in Canada) centres around the idea of Simone Hicks (Geffri Maya) leaving her boyfriend behind in Los Angeles to attend Bringston University, a historically Black college (HBCU) in Atlanta.
Already breaking ground for its depiction of the HBCU student experience, the series also features the first Black non-binary character in The CW’s history. Gender nonconforming queer actor Rhoyle Ivy King plays Nathaniel, a friend who helps Simone get acquainted with life in Atlanta.
Media outlets have dubbed King the breakout star of the series. And it’s true: the role is a big break for the actor whose appearances in Pose and the Party of Five reboot were uncredited.
King spoke to Xtra about the importance of their work, the distinction between the pronouns they use and those their character uses and the state of representation on television currently.
I want to get right into it. Nathaniel is the first Black non-binary character in The CW’s history. What does that mean to you?
Oh, it means a lot to me. It was something very touching when I learned about it, and I spoke to our showrunner about that. For me, it means representation. It means that there are going to be non-binary young folks getting to see themselves represented on screen. I think that’s really important.
Does playing a representative role like this come with any pressure? Knowing that for many, this will be the first time that they can see somebody that they can relate to on TV?
It comes with pressure, but the pressure is really good. It’s a pressure that requires me to learn, to read and to understand and make sure that I’m doing my best for my community. So that’s really what it comes down to for me. It’s putting in the work.
Is there anything about Nathaniel that you want audiences to know?
One thing that I really hope they see is a queer character who is grounded. I think oftentimes when I’ve seen characters—queer characters specifically—in Hollywood, it’s always been someone that’s undefined. They don’t really know exactly who they are, and they’re in discovery, which [Nathaniel] is. But one thing that I really love is that she knows who she is in this moment. And that can always change, that can always develop, but Nathaniel’s a very grounded and centred person for a lot of her friends. And I think that’s something so beautiful to see that as the queer character, she is actually kind of like the glue.
I understand that when you first auditioned for the role, there weren’t plans to have you as a series regular, but you’ve since been elevated to a recurring guest star. Can you take me back to that audition?
Way back at the audition, I remember getting through it and I was like, “Ooh, she’s fierce!” Like her character description, she is fly! She is everything that she needs to be. I remember reading the scene where her and her friend Keisha were at a fashion show getting ready, and there was a big makeup issue. I could instantly pull back into those moments right before a big show, the nervousness and anxiousness that you feel as you are trying to get things prepared. Then all of a sudden, something goes wrong. So I could connect with that. I also love that I could connect, you know, with how she expressed her gender, that she was fly and into fashion and into hair and into beauty.
And those were the things that I really held on to. Throughout the season, I’ve been able to learn so much more, because of course, you know, you kind of learn things as you get episode after episode and discover so many things about your character. So as we’ve gone on, so many more things have started to sink in: who she is to her friends, how she behaves in this world and even her own self-confidence. So those are a few things that I just love.
What was it like as an actor to find a role this satisfying and unique?
I was texting with the showrunner (Nkechi Okoro Carroll), when we first got started, with tears streaming down my face. I said, “I feel like I’m playing a character that’s healing my own inner child.” It’s healing and who I needed to see when I was growing up. And I think what’s so beautiful about it, it’s showing young non-binary people exactly who they can grow up and become. It starts to shape them and shape a future for them. I remember talking to the showrunner about how powerful it is to see a character start to carve out her own path in a world that’s just made for two genders and how important that’s going to be to so many young people. That was our first big kind of, you know, heart-to-heart about this character. So for me, I know it’s healing the young actor in me who needed to see someone that they wanted to become and strive for.
This is your first major role. Do you think it was harder for you as an openly gender nonconforming person to break into the industry?
I definitely feel like there were a lot more challenges that I couldn’t necessarily talk to some of my fellow actors about. Being told, “I think if you kind of dial yourself back, you’ll work a little bit more. If you cut your hair, pull the fashion back, you know, casting will get to see you.” For a while I sang on cruise ships, and that’s where I met my best friend, Christina. There’s one thing that she told me that I will always hold on to: she said, “Never apologize for living in your craft,” and that was something that I really had to do with faith, honestly.
To walk into an audition room, knowing that they’re looking for this kind of person, and going, “This is what I have to offer you.” Yeah, it was something that I really had to do and not necessarily ever know if it was ever going to play in my favour. But one thing that I decided after watching shows like Pose—and watching all of these beautiful trans women, Billy Porter and the rest of the cast live out their lives—I told myself, I said, even if it takes me a little bit longer, I’m just gonna stay true to myself.
We’ve seen more high-profile non-binary actors in recent years, including Asia Kate Dillon and Lincoln Clauss. What do you think about the state of non-binary representation on TV?
I think we’re moving in a really good direction. I think what’s really helped is the fact that we’re getting to tell our own stories. And that we’re getting into show running and executive producing and writing.
I also think there’s the add-on of social media. Sometimes getting that ability to take a direct approach right to the audience. It’s helped for people to see us that didn’t always have proximity to us in their everyday lives. So to get on TikTok and say, “I’ve never seen a person like this, but they seem really cool.” Like, you know, I think that’s really helping. And then it makes Hollywood have to turn the dial and go, “I think we have to reflect on the world that we really live in.”
You don’t identify in the same way that your character does. Do you just draw on the mutual understanding of the similar hardship you faced?
Yes. The biggest point that the show makes is that term that we love, “intersectionality.” I talked to someone from GLAAD about the role and they were clear, they were like, “You do not share her trans identity. But you do understand what it is like to be Black and queer and gender nonconforming in the world that we live in and what that can feel like.” Especially in that coming-of-age time, it was a very hard thing for me to really stay true to when I moved from home. And when I was getting, you know, established in New York City and going to college, that feeling of your teachers telling you, “You need to look like this if you want to work.” I can change once I get the part, but who I present myself and who those headshots are going to look like … that has to be me.
Why is it important to highlight experiences at HBCUs?
As a Black person, to be able to look around and see all the different examples of your history and the excellence that lives in your history is so important. When you’re in those moments like Simone has had, where she was down and was trying to pull herself up, you can pull on those experiences and look up and see someone that reflects you.
People from my generation identified with the high school experiences depicted on shows like Degrassi, 90210, and Saved by the Bell. While this show is about college, the idea of representation is still prevalent. I remember how groundbreaking A Different World was, which finally offered a perspective on diversity. Do you think that this is what this show will do for a new generation?
You know, I really hope so. And I think a lot of us in the cast … that’s been our inspiration, or what really motivates us to continue pushing and diving. We really all have the expectation when it comes into our work that someone is going to see this. And they’re going to see themselves reflected on that TV, and go, “You know, I feel that too.” Like one of my favourite things to do is watch Twitter and read the tweets that people write about the previous episode.
In a recent episode, Keisha struggles to talk to her dad about her wanting to go into dance. To see the amount of people online that said, “I remember how hard it was to tell my parents the truth about what I really wanted to do in life, and that I wanted to break away from their traditions.” Or even watching Simone adapt as a freshman to a whole new city and a whole new life. They were able to look at that and go, “I remember that” or “That inspires me” or “Now I see myself reflected.” And I think at the end of the day, we want people to walk away and say, “I felt personally touched by this show.”
What do you want people to know about Nathaniel that they might not already know? And what do you want people to know about Rhoyle that they don’t already know?
One thing that I want them to know about Nathaniel is that her passion comes from her empathy. She really puts in a lot for her friends. And you know, even her career path of going into law. For me, as far as the backstory I have created, it all comes from the point of her desire to be someone to people that she may not have always had growing up. And I think I truly can connect with that. That’s actually probably the biggest aspect of me being in this career is that I want to be someone that I wish I could have had when I was growing up. I want to be that kind of person for all, especially the young, queer Black artists that are watching this show. For them to have someone they go, “Yes!”
All American: Homecoming airs Mondays at 10 p.m. EST on The CW and CTV2.